Perry Smith understands how to grow a brand.
Nearly ten years ago, four men sat down to talk about opening a restaurant in Washington, D.C. Smith, Drew Kim, and brothers Mark and Ty Neal had expansive ideas about brands – pizzas from custom-made ovens, upscale diners, hot dogs piled with nuclear green relish – but the mood in the capital was uncertain.
“The intention was always to expand in the D.C. market,” Smith says, “but when we first set up Matchbox – I have to take you back a little bit. It was post 9/11. [The restaurant scene in] Washington, D.C., was still in the process of developing.”
In 2003, the first Matchbox, Matchbox: Chinatown, opened in D.C. It featured brick-oven pizzas baked in an oven crafted by an artist in Maine. But Perry admits the brand didn’t begin to generate heat until its second location, Matchbox: Palm Springs, rolled out in California in 2005.
“That was a big stepping stone for us, in 2005,” Smith says. Suddenly, the brains at Matchbox were “getting cold calls from people saying, ‘We need a matchbox in this neighborhood.’”
Smith says he, Kim, and the brothers Neal have a brainstorming strategy called pickle barrel. “I think there’s a lot of creativity in our group,” Smith says. “We have a couple other concepts we’ve been chasing around. We call it the pickle barrel way of brand development: everyone kind of just sits around and talks things through.”
His advice for a small business looking to expand in the restaurant industry is threefold. “First, figure out why you want to expand, and once you figure that out, build your brand,” he suggests. Most importantly, “Pick a location and really, really do your homework. Look at demographic studies and what’s happening in the neighborhood. You have to get a feel for it. Ask yourself, does my restaurant or my brand match up with this neighborhood? If it does, if you feel that, that’s very much a step in the right direction. Do your homework.”
Smith and his comrades certainly did their homework when choosing D.C. “We understand the economy is not great, but D.C. is such a great restaurant town,” he says.
In 2008, Matchbox: Capitol Hill opened its doors. With three restaurants under their belts, the Matchbox men stood ready for a banner year. 2010 saw the opening of yet another Matchbox, this one in Maryland, as well as two new concepts: Ted’s Bulletin and DC-3.
Smith describes Ted’s Bulletin as a 1930s-style, art-deco concept: an upscale diner with chef-driven, American food. DC-3, meanwhile, brings the hot dog cart into the restaurant, and offers wayward creations from the classic NY Coney to Q’s Seoul Bulgogi & Kimchi and the Rochester White Snappy Griller.
Tired yet? With three new restaurants opened in the past year, Smith and company show no signs of slowing down. They signed three leases in D.C. to open more restaurants in the next year and a half.
“Once we feel like the foothold is pretty solid here, we’re going to look outside of the Washington market,” Smith says. “We’d love to get to the point where Matchbox is nationally recognized. That’s kind of a tall order, but we’re sure gonna have fun doing it.”
By Sonya Chudgar